February 15, 2017

Hurray for Musical Colonialism-Imperialism!

Mozart did it with the Rondo a la Turca finale of his piano sonata K.331.  Beethoven - with the Thème russe in his Razumovsky Quartets.  Boulez's Le Marteau sans Maitre alludes to the sounds of Balinese gamelan music, while Steve Reich's Drumming is a minimalist recollection of his trip to Africa.  Fortunately for art music, its pathetically low profile in today's American society has kept such colonialist-imperialist musical transgressions invisible to vigilant social justice warriors who are always ready to flood social media with indignant yapping about the evils of cultural appropriation - say, when they see a photo of some Caucasian celebrity bimbo wearing an 'ethnic' Halloween costume.  Lets hope things stay this way.  My Go-Fuck-Yourself List is already way too long to accommodate what must be nearly the entire Twitter-cum-Facebook generation of useless whiny assholes.

As for cultural appropriations, one of my favorite musical examples is Elliott Carter's rather abstract take on North Indian Dhrupad music.  During his 1964 visit to Berlin, Carter attended a concert by the Dagar Brothers and was intrigued by the music's continuously unfolding line being passed from one player to another.  Twenty years later he used this idea for Penthode, in which a long continuous musical line passes from one instrument to another in an ensemble of twenty players divided into five groups of four (with each group comprising instruments of different types).  The piece was commissioned by and dedicated to Ensemble InterContemporain (and its then music director Pierre Boulez); and I doubt a better case can be made for this unusual bit of Carteriana than this ensemble's live recordings from a 2016 Proms concert conducted by Baldur Brönnimann and a 2001 Paris concert conducted by David Robertson.


David Federman said...

Thanks to you, Elliott Carter has become one of the later loves of my musical life. These two performances emphasize different characteristics of this wonderful piece--although the origin/original inspiration would be hard to trace if you hadn't divulged it. I like Carter's main compositional idea--five groups passing and sharing the music in a kind of brigade-fashion. There is constant darting of motif and the music is ceaseless in its dynamic shifts and propulsion. Bronnimann allows for more contrast and, to my ears, lyricism. He seems more attuned to the moments of color in the piece. in the end, however, I preferred Robertson's harder-edged, more cohesive approach. He always seems cognizant of the whole and how all parts participate in and contribute to it. Although Carter is an extraordinary colorist (or what I call sonorist), I think there is a need to stay aware of the piece's unfolding structure and processional nature. Robertson also seems more appreciative of the piece's moments of wit. Halfway through, there is a short Ivesian moment with an almost ragtime piano. It made me smile. I expected to smile a second time while listening to Bronnimann, but I didn't.

Boom said...


Good to hear that Carter's fan base is growing! Incidentally, I also prefer Robertson's performance. For me, there is an underlying tension that binds the piece's sections with something like musical 'inevitability'.